Treasures from the Vault: David Shapiro’s Archive

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Artist Steven Sorman working in his home studio.
Steven Sorman in his studio, New York. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

One of my first assignments when I started working at the museum was to join a group of staff driving all the way out to New York to pick up the archives of artist Steven Sorman. Out in the country, not your typical view of New York, sat his and his wife Melissa’s house, studio, and barn (each space full to the brim with beautiful art). Melissa was an expert gardener, so the views were ah-mazing. Along with packing and loading hundreds of artworks, I met their cat, Duck, ate the most delicious tacos that Steven made (he’s a great artist in many aspects), and listened to the best stories about both his and Melissa’s lives. Upon arrival at the museum, Steven Sorman became the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s first collected artist archive in 2014.

Steven and Melissa Sorman’s house, studio, and garden. Note Duck the cat on the right in the foreground! Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

A while later we got a call from Sorman; one of his dearest friends, David Shapiro, who had already passed away, had an archive of work that his widow, Yara Trokel, was overwhelmed by. After months of communicating, a schedule was made for the FWMoA to acquire the works and a list of artwork was compiled. I was, again, asked to travel to New York to manage the pick-up of another archive. As the date got closer, the time frame got narrower and the stress amplified. By day of, the team had approximately five hours to find, gather, and wrap close to 600 works. On top of having a limited time to pack the art, Yara was extremely emotional seeing all the work leave and the storage room empty out; not only were we managing artwork, we were managing emotions. We found out later that she was terminally ill with the same diagnosis that took her husbands life, therefore, we realized that she wanted the work to be preserved and viewed for generations to come. She passed away just a few months after we saw her.

The storage unit holding David Shapiro’s art. Photo courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

Arriving on site at the storage unit that day was surreal. It was finally happening, after being discussed for so long. Looking down the stark white hallways of the storage unit, you would never imagine that so much art was squeezed into such a small room. It was literally floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall jam-packed with David’s paintings; with only a couple of feet of walking room. We started grabbing works closest to the door and lining the hallway with them while they were checked off of the list, or adding them because nothing ever goes to plan, then wrapping them with cardboard for safety. Towards the end of the day, we had to break down the wooden shelves to reach the larger paintings. Somehow we were all able to work efficiently as a team and get the job done within the five hour time frame.

David Shapiro, American, 1944 – 2014. Archaic Smile (I), (In memory of Mark Rothko). Acrylic on linen, 1974. Gift of Yara Trokel, DS.431. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Charles Shepard, FWMoA President & CEO, said that collecting the archives of both Steven Sorman and David Shapiro was a dream. Shepard had followed their careers, making sure to collect their work at every museum he had led. Sorman and Shapiro’s success followed the time period when American art thrived. In the mid-1940’s, the art world turned its head from Europe, the masters of fine art, and focused on America. The Abstract Expressionism movement turned the art world upside down with American artists like Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, William de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler (I could keep going…) changing the game, on both a visual and financial level. Sorman and Shapiro followed this time and created a fresh take on abstraction; Sorman, wild and enthralling, and Shapiro, meditative and focused. Both of their art has a powerful presence and energy on a large and small scale.

David Shapiro, American, 1944 – 2014. Origin & Return 41. Acrylic on canvas, 2000. Gift of Yara Trokel. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Since collecting David Shapiro’s archives, the museum has exhibited his work three different times: two painting and one works on paper exhibitions. The fourth one opened this weekend, David Shapiro: Transcendent Abstractions. The coolest part about exhibiting Shapiro’s work is that most have never been seen or displayed for decades. Processing the works is being done in batches because of the size and quantity of works. Unwrapping, cleaning (we’ve seen clouds of dust fly), and installing them allows us to document their condition and photograph them for the database. It also corrects any errors from the initial paperwork we received when we picked them up; if they were works that were added on to the list, for example, it solves a lot of unknowns. To finalize the archives and get them all processed, the works from this exhibition will constantly change until we have seen every painting.

David Shapiro, American, 1944 – 2014. Mudra 35. Acrylic on canvas, 1996. Gift of Yara Trokel, 2016.339. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Shapiro’s style can be described as complex minimalism. The paintings seem so simple from far away, but up close they are the complete opposite. They are so painstakingly detailed it’s hard to wrap your head around how he accomplished making it look so easy. I am personally obsessed with the Mudra series; there is usually a circular form that has so much texture I could stare at them forever and not know how it was made. This texture is applied to many of his works, in fact, it’s hard to find examples where he didn’t. Any panel or canvas of his work you look at, you can see how obsessive, yet restrained, his style was.

David Shapiro, American, 1944 – 2014. Clearing 26. Acrylic on canvas, 1988, Gift of Yara Trokel, 2016.393. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Shapiro was greatly inspired by Buddhism, and as a lifelong student of the religion, it impacted his work in a number of ways. Shapiro sometimes referred to the term “allostasis,” defined as stability through change. He practiced awareness of his surroundings and observed how all things related to one another. When working, his brushstrokes often coincided with the arc of his breath while he painted: outer connecting with inner, spiritual with physical. His mark as an artist was not only an extension or action of his body, but his very essence. By continually working and experimenting Shapiro found stability through the changes his career brought him, discovering ways to express the world around him. His work was his mantra and his meditation.

Installation view of David Shapiro: Transcendent Abstraction. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Looking at David Shapiro’s work never gets old, you can always find something new to enjoy! Come and see David Shapiro: Transcendent Abstraction, open until February 16th, 2020. Please check for holiday hours.

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